Muhammad’s critics and their deaths

Why the West must protect freedom of speech

James M. Arlandson

An authoritarian ruler must get a grip. The first policy that he imposes on his people shuts down free speech that expresses dissent and criticism, especially if the speech questions the leader. He takes any questioning of his opinions and decisions as a personal insult of him, the head of state, and therefore a threat to his society.

Muhammad laid down severe restrictions on such free speech. He assassinated many who insulted him. In the Quran, he promises death and eternal damnation if anyone deviates in words and action from Allah and his messenger. In the hadith (Muhammad’s words and deeds outside of the Quran), we read that he kills dissenters and insulters. Later legal rulings, rooted in the Quran and hadith, follow his lead and decree that hard-hitting speech must be stifled. Indeed, the dissenters must die, if they cross the line.

In 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader issued a fatwa (legal decree) to assassinate Salman Rushdie, a novelist, who wrote Satanic Verses, which includes questions about the angel Gabriel’s role in inspiring the Quran. Now the extremists in the highest levels in Iran have recently renewed the fatwa.

In 2003, legendary American radio host Paul Harvey was asked by Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to apologize for saying that Islam encourages killing. Dhimmi Watch provides the context of Harvey's remarks. His comments have plenty of Quranic verses to back them up, but his free speech must be curtailed.

In 2004, Britain’s Robert Kilroy-Silk, presenter of a daytime TV show, wrote an article that used harsh language against Arabs. The Muslim Council of Britain denounced the rant and said that action should be taken against him. He has since resigned. The Muslim Council welcomed the news.

In 2005, Radical Muslims do not hesitate to riot if the Quran is desecrated. In honor of their holy book, they kill innocent people. This demonstrates how far radicals will go in responding to perceived insults of their religion.

In 2005, The Muslim Council of Victoria, Australia, brought a lawsuit against two pastors for holding a conference and posting articles critiquing Islam. Three Muslims attended the conference and felt offended. The two pastors have been convicted based on a vilification law in one of Australia’s states. While on trial, one of them wanted to read from the Quran on domestic violence, but the lawyer for the Muslim Council would not allow it. The pastors are appealing their conviction.

In 2005, British Muslims have been campaigning to pass a religious hate speech law in England’s parliament. They have succeeded. However, Muslims may read passages from the Quran that call for harsh treatment of Jews and Christians. Their ability to propagandize has not been curtailed, either. Opponents of the law say that it stifles free speech that may criticize Muhammad, the Quran, and Islam.

[Editor’s and author’s update: The religious hate speech law has finally not succeeded. The bill, which "was aimed at extending the concept of the UK’s race hate laws to cover belief" lost by one vote. "[C]ritics said ministers’ proposals would have made it too wide-reaching." (Sources: here and here)]

In 2005, Radio host Michael Graham was fired for connecting Islam to terrorism. The Council on American Islamic Relations called this hate speech. The owner of the station demand that Graham apologized, but he refused. This is the article that started it all.

Why do these Muslims want to restrict unpleasant speech about their religion? Are they hiding anything? Are they embarrassed about something that sits at the core of their religion? These Muslims who would restrict free speech are following their prophet.

Here is how the story of repression of hard-hitting speech unfolds in early Islam. First, some verses in the Quran, analyzed in their literary and historical context, do not promise a happy life for dissenters and insulters. Second, the hadith (reports of Muhammad’s words and deeds outside of the Quran) records reliable traditions that spell out doom for dissenters and insulters. Third, later classical legal rulings, which are rooted in the Quran and hadith, do not promise tolerance for hard-hitting speech, to say the least. Next, we contrast the way of Jesus with the way of Muhammad. Needless to say, even though Jesus was often insulted, he did not order executions or lay down excessive rules against unpleasant speech.

Finally, we explore why the West must maintain its free speech, and we apply our findings to the world today.


Islam punishes insulters and blasphemers severely—and even executes them. This stifles free speech, even offensive speech. This repression is unwise in a society, because the truth will stay hidden.

The Quran

The Quran asserts that insulters and mockers may be killed or condemned to hell.

After the Battle of Uhud in March 625, which the Muslims lost, Muhammad was stung. He and his Muslim community suffered a loss of prestige, though the community did not crumble, but quickly recovered and grew, so the loss was not material. In this verse about undergoing insults from the People of the Book (Jews, mostly, in Medina at this time), Muhammad has to take the path of humility.

3:186 You [Muhammad] are sure to be tested through your possessions and persons; you are sure to hear much that is hurtful [aa-dh-aa] from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with God [polytheists]. If you are steadfast and mindful of God, that is the best course. (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004)

The word "hurtful" is the same Arabic word (three-letter root is aa-dh-aa) that has been translated, below, as "annoy" and "insult." It has the semantic range of hurt, suffer, damage, injure, or harm. "The word . . . signifies a slight evil . . . or anything causing a slight harm" (Abdul Mannan Omar, ed., Dictionary of the Holy Qur’an, Noor Foundation, 2003, p. 19). Fakhry translates the key word in this verse as "abuse" (An Interpretation of the Qur’an, NYUP, 2000, 2004). Allah tells his prophet that he has to take the insults, not retaliate. Historically, Muhammad was momentarily too weak to retaliate against insults after the Battle of Uhud. But Allah reveals that if he is patient, then he will find a great strength. Indeed, he exiled the Jewish tribe of an-Nadir in August of that year and eliminated the Jewish tribe Qurayza after the Battle of the Trench in AD 627.

After the Battle of the Trench in 627, Muhammad’s power, though always growing, increases exponentially in Medina, even more so than after the Battle of Badr in 624; therefore Allah sends down Sura (Chapter) 33 in the context of the Trench. In fact, we find in this sura that Muhammad is so powerful that he lays seize to the Jewish strongholds in Medina, captures them, decapitates 600 male Jews of the Qurayzah tribe, enslaves its woman and children, though he keeps a beautiful Jewess for himself, and confiscates all of their property, which is considerable (33:26-27). After this great victory and confiscation, Muhammad is wealthier than ever. In his wealth and power he lays down more rules for his many wives (33:33-40). Thus, it is in the context of Muhammad’s rising power and wealth, atrocity against the Jews, and new laws about marriage and the behavior of women that these verses were received in Sura 33:

33:57 Those who insult [aa-dh-aa] God and His Messenger will be rejected by God in this world and the next—He has prepared a humiliating punishment for them— 58 and those who undeservedly insult [aa-dh-aa] believing men and women will bear the guilt of slander and obvious sin. (Haleem)

Muslim scholars agree that the word aa-dh-aa includes false reports. So Muhammad was advocating eternal damnation for merely annoying the prophet and his Muslims, the "believing men and women," and for lying insults.

Then the sura (chapter) continues with commands to Muhammad’s wives to wear veils so that the insults will stop. But he also promises the insulting liars conquest and death (v. 61), which seems to echo the atrocity committed against the Jewish Qurayzah tribe.

33:59 Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garment hang low over them, so as to be recognized and not insulted [aa-dh-aa]: God is most forgiving, most merciful. 60 If the hypocrites, the sick of heart, and those who spread lies in the city [Medina] do not desist, We shall arouse you [Prophet] against them, and then they will only be your neighbors in this city for a short while. 61 They will be rejected wherever they are found, and then seized and killed. (Haleem)

This passage is stark. Muhammad lays down the law for all the Muslim women so that no false rumors can grow—they must wear veils. The phrase "sick of heart" is understood by Muslim commentators like Maulana Ali and Hilali and Khan as those who have excessive sexual desire, so the women must cover up. Regardless, the class of rumor-mongers, "those who spread lies," is subjected to the harshest warning. If they do not desist, they will not only be exiled, but also find no rest wherever they go. Then they will be "seized and killed," as the Qurayza tribe was. These verses, though received in 627, predict nicely what will happen to the satirical poets during the conquest of Mecca in 630, for they spread lies and insult the honor of Muslim women and Muhammad himself.

Finally, in Sura 9, Muhammad’s power is complete, especially in the last two-thirds of the sura, which deals with the expedition to Tabuk (in the far north of Saudi Arabia today) in late 630. The hypocrites in Islam are the lukewarm Muslims who circle just outside of Islam, watching the fortunes of the community, whether they rise and stay prosperous. They do not follow the prophet when he cracks the whip; indeed, they backed away from following him to Tabuk because of the expense, the harvest season, and the heat (Sura 9:81-83). Muhammad could not tolerate such wishy-washy behavior, since he planned to expand northward even after Tabuk. So it is in this context that Muhammad receives these verses about insults and mockery and jokes from hypocrites.

9:61 There are others who insult [aa-dh-aa] the Prophet by saying, "He will listen to anything." [Muhammad,] Say, "He listens for your own good" . . . An agonizing torment awaits those who insult [aa-dh-aa] God’s Messenger . . . 63 Do they not know that whoever opposes God and His Messenger will go to the Fire of Hell and stay there?" That is the supreme disgrace. (Haleem)

Thus, the hypocrites accuse Muhammad of listening to anything and everything, so he lacks wisdom and inspiration from Allah. But Allah gets the last laugh, for they will be thrown into the fires of hell. According to Sura 9:73 and 123, Muhammad wages a physical and violent war on them.

Muhammad continues his denunciation of the hypocrites with their jokes:

9:64 The hypocrites fear that a sura will be revealed exposing what is in their hearts—say, "Carry on with your jokes: God will bring about what you fear!"— 65 yet if you were to question them, they would be sure to say, "We were just chatting, just amusing ourselves." Say, "Were you making jokes about God, His Revelation [the Quran], and His Messenger? 66 Do not try to justify yourselves; you have gone from belief to disbelief." (Haleem)

Muhammad goes on to assert that the hypocrites are misleading a number of people, and in the eyes of the violent radicals today, this could easily be applied to Muslims who go from "belief to disbelief" as they criticize Islam and Muhammad. They have become hypocrites worthy of the fires of hell (v. 68); and taking verse 33:61 (see above) seriously, which promises besiegement and death, the radicals today help the hypocrites reach hell more quickly, by assassinating them rather than waiting for natural causes. The hypocrites of Muhammad’ time and of today cannot hide behind "chatting and amusing themselves" because God, the Quran, and the Messenger cannot be trifled with.

Indeed, the Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) in 1980, shortly after he gained power in Iran and issued the first fatwa against Rushdie, said: "There is no room for play in Islam . . . . It is deadly serious about everything."

To conclude this section, the Quran, allegedly the book of peace, commands violence and promises eternal damnation for insulting Muhammad. He wages war on the hypocrites and other opponents circling just outside or barely within the Islamic community. He predicts that he will seize and kill insulters and mockers. Why should we be surprised if Muhammad’s followers seize and kill insulters and mockers today? Or short of that, why should we be surprised if Muslims in the West today seek to restrict by legal means unpleasant, hard-hitting (but fact-based) speech that criticizes Muhammad, the Quran, or Islam? How can traditional Muslims who know the origins of their religion reform? That would entail giving up many verses in the Quran. The cognitive dissonance or mental shock would be too severe.

For more information on Islamic intolerance, please go to this article.

The Hadith

The hadith are the reports of Muhammad’s words and actions outside of the Quran. The three most reliable hadith collectors and editors are Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim (d. 875), and Abu Dawud (d. 875). The Quran and the hadith are the foundations for later legal rulings. What follows are the stories that tell of the deaths of individuals who insulted Muhammad.

Uqba bin Abu Muayt

Uqba harassed and mocked Muhammad in Mecca and wrote derogatory verses about him (cf. Sura 83:13). He was captured during the Battle of Badr in AD 624, and Muhammad ordered him to be executed. "But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?" Uqba cried with anguish. "Hell," retorted the prophet coldly. Then the sword of one of his followers cut through Uqba’s neck.

Source: Bukhari, vol. 4, no. 2934; Muslim, vol. 3, nos. 4422, 4424.These three passages from the hadith depict Muhammad calling on Allah for revenge on this poet. See also Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, (Oxford UP, 1955, 2004), p. 308 (Arabic page p. 458). Reputable historians today consider Ibn Ishaq to be a good source of early Islam, though they may disagree on his chronology and miraculous elements.

Kab bin al-Ashraf

Kab b. al-Ashraf had a mixed ancestry. His father came from a nomadic Arab, but his mother was a Jewess from the powerful al-Nadr tribe in Medina. He lived as a member of his mother’s tribe. He heard about the Muslim victory at the battle of Badr, and he was disgusted, for he thought Muhammad the newcomer to Medina was a trouble-maker and divisive. Kab had the gift of poetry, and after the Battle of Badr he traveled down to Mecca, apparently stopping by Badr, since it was near a major trade route to Mecca, witnessing the aftermath. Arriving in Mecca, he wrote a widely circulated poem, a hostile lament, over the dead of Mecca.

Pro-Muslim poets answered Kab’s poem with ones of their own, and that was enough for his hosts in Mecca to turn him out. He returned to Medina, writing some amatory verses about Muslim women, a mistake compounded on a mistake, given the tense climate in Medina and Muhammad’s victory at Badr. Angered by the poems and now able to strike back after the Battle of Badr, Muhammad had had enough. He asked, "Who would rid me of [Kab]?" Five Muslims volunteered, one of whom was Kab’s foster-brother named Abu Naila. They informed him, "O apostle of God [Muhammad], we shall have to tell lies." He answered, "Say what you like, for you are free in the matter."

As the murder was underway, Kab mounted a strong defense, so the swords of the five murderers were ineffective. Finally, one of the conspirators remembered his dagger, stabbed Kab in the belly, and then bore it down until it reached Kab’s genitals, killing him. The five made it back to Muhammad, but only after difficulty, since in the dark they had wounded one of their own. They saluted the prophet as he stood praying, and he came out to them. They told him that the mission was accomplished. He spat on their comrade’s wound, and they returned to their families. Their attack on Kab sent shock waves into the Jewish community, so that "there was no Jew in Medina who did not fear for his life," reports Ibn Ishaq. (For more details on how the five Muslim thugs killed Kab, see this article and scroll down to point no. five. The article also answers Muslims who justify Muhammad’s violence.) The early Muslim historian Tabari reports that the five severed Kab’s head and brought it to Muhammad. How can the terrorists who are also thrilled to sever heads not be inspired by early Islam? It is authentic Islam because it is original Islam—the one that Muhammad taught.

Sources: Bukhari vol. 5, no. 4037; Muslim vol. 3, no. 4436. See also Ibn Ishaq 364-69 / 548-53; Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, trans. W. Montgomery Watt (SUNYP, 1987), pp. 94-98 / 1368-73. Reputable historians today consider Tabari to be a good source of data on early Islam, though they may not agree on his chronology or miraculous elements.

Abu Dawud collected and edited the hadith, and his is considered reliable. He cites two cases of death for insulters, and limits the death penalty to insults thrown at Muhammad alone, not at other Muslim leaders like a Caliph or a governor.

A slave-mother

First, Ibn Abbas was Muhammad’s cousin and is considered a highly reliable transmitter of traditions. He recounts that a blind man had a slave-mother who used to abuse the prophet with her words. The man tried to stop her repeatedly, "but she did not give up the habit."

One night she began to slander the Prophet . . . and abuse him. So he [the blind man] took a dagger, placed it on her belly, pressed it, and killed her. A child who was between her legs was smeared with the blood that was there.

The next morning Muhammad was informed of the murder, so he assembled the people and demanded to know who did it. Finally, the blind man stood up, trembling and explained to Muhammad the insults of his slave mother, his human property. He said he even had two sons by her. He told the prophet that he tried to stop her, but she did not desist. He admitted that he killed her. What was Muhammad’s response? "Oh, be my witness, no retaliation is payable for her blood" (vol. 3, no. 4348). It is remarkable that Muhammad did not imprison or even scold the man for killing the mother of his two children. Who says that early Islam is not violent beyond all reason and all excuses?

A Jewish woman

Second, a Jewish woman used to insult the prophet and disparage him. "A man strangled her till she died. The Apostle of Allah . . . declared that no recompense was payable for her blood" (vol. 3, no. 4349). The translator of Abu Dawud notes that this proves that non-Muslims, even People of the Book or Bible (Jews and Christians), can be killed for insulting Muhammad (note 3800). Violence sits at the core of early Islam, authentic Islam.

An anonymous man who insulted Abu Bakr

The case that illustrates that insulting Muhammad alone brings down the death penalty involves Abu Bakr (a companion of Muhammad), who refused to slay a man who uttered hot words against him. The companion became angry with him. Another man who saw everything volunteered to chop off the head of the abuser (even the offer demonstrates how casually early Islam traffics in violence). But Abu Bakr stopped the Muslim volunteer, saying that this punishment is not allowed after Muhammad (vol. 3, no. 4350). This means that if someone insults another Muslim leader besides Muhammad, the insulter is not killed. So limited free speech is allowed, but not enough, if no one today is permitted to criticize Muhammad or even insult him. Apparently, this fine distinction is lost during Islamic rule in its heyday. Tolerance was not always practiced, as Robert Spencer’s new book, The Myth of Islamic Tolerance, demonstrates.

Before leaving the hadith, we should note two things. First, here is a prediction of eternal damnation for anyone who insults Muhammad or Allah.

Narrated Ali: The Prophet said, "Do not tell a lie against me, for whoever tells a lie against me (intentionally) then he will surely enter Hell-fire. (Bukhari vol. 4, Book of Knowledge, no. 106)

Muhammad said that Allah feels slighted if anyone says that Allah has a son, precisely what Christians affirm, according to the New Testament (Bukhari, Beginning of Creation, vol. 5, no. 3193).

Second, Muhammad ordered poets of his own to attack with words his opponents and said that the archangel Gabriel would be with them (Bukhari, Military Expeditions, vol. 5, nos. 4123-4124; 4196). Muhammad allowed friendly poets to insult his enemies, but they were unable to kill him or his poets in revenge. One would hope that an Allah-inspired prophet would rise above such dubious customs and practices as insult poetry. So this custom and the revenge for insults go only one way--Muhammad's way. How is this justice? It is tribalism at its worse.

The conclusion here follows that of the previous section. Muhammad was not tolerant, so should we be surprised if his followers today are intolerant? Muhammad killed critics and insulters, so should we be surprised if his followers do the same to critics and insulters of Muhammad? But if they are not allowed (or do not wish) to kill critics and mockers, why should we be surprised if Muslims in the West today seek to restrict by legal means hard-hitting (but fact-based) speech that exposes Muhammad, the Quran, and Islam? How can traditional Muslims who know the origins of their religion reform on this matter of violence perpetrated on dissenters and critics and mockers? That would entail abandoning passages in the hadith and in the Quran. The cognitive dissonance or mental shock would be too severe.

Classical legal rulings

Sharia is Islamic law embodied in the Quran and the hadith. Fiqh is the science of applying and interpreting sharia, done by qualified judges and legal scholars. Over the first two centuries after Muhammad’s death in AD 632, four main Sunni schools of fiqh emerged, led by these scholars: Malik (d. 795), who lived in Medina, Arabia; Abu Hanifa (d. 767), who lived in Kufa, Iraq; Shafi (d. 820), who lived mostly in Mecca, Arabia, but who was buried in Cairo, Egypt; and Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) who lived in Baghdad, Iraq.

The most thorough discussion of insults and excessively limited free speech is found in the medieval manual compiled by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368): Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994). It summarizes rulings in the Shafi School of fiqh.

We focus on this manual, but for the other schools of fiqh, we rely on a Muslim scholar to summarize their views. This section covers the insults committed by Muslims and non-Muslims.

According to Reliance of the Traveler, for Muslims, acts that entail leaving Islam—known as apostasy or ridda—are "the ugliest form of unbelief (kufr) and the worst" (p. 595, o8.0). "When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostatizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed" (p. 595, o8.1). Repentance is accepted so that he is not killed, but if he refuses to repent, then the Caliph or his representative may execute him, without indemnity or expiation for killing him.

For our purposes, these eight acts (among many more) mean that a Muslim has apostatized (pp. 597-98, o8.7):

(1) To speak words that imply unbelief such as "Allah is one of three" or "I am Allah." A mitigating circumstance on such blasphemy is if a man’s tongue "runs away with" him or is intoxicated.

(2) Reviling Allah or his Messenger.

(3) Being sarcastic about "Allah’s name, His command, His interdiction, His promise, or His threat."

(4) Denying any verse of the Quran or "anything which by scholarly consensus belongs to it, or to add a verse that does not belong to it."

(5) Holding that "any of Allah’s messengers or prophets are liars, or to deny their being sent."

(6) Reviling the religion of Islam.

(7) Being sarcastic about any ruling of the Sacred Law.

(8) Denying that Allah intended "the Prophet’s message . . . to be the religion followed by the entire world."

These rules are broad and ambiguous; therefore, they can shut down any criticism of Muhammad, Islam, or the Quran. It is no wonder that critical investigation of the truth claims of Islam and the violence and immorality in Muhammad’s life and in the Quran can never prevail in Islamic lands when the sword of Muhammad hangs over the scholars’ head. The Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800) that covered the West and that produced critical scholarship and advanced technology has bypassed the Islamic world, and this is tragic and the cause of many troubles between the West and Islam.

The non-Muslims living under Islamic rule are not allowed to do the following (p. 609, o11.10(1)-(5)):

(1) Commit adultery with a Muslim woman or marry her;

(2) Conceal spies of hostile forces;

(3) Lead a Muslim away from Islam;

(4) Mention something impermissible about Allah, the Prophet . . . or Islam.

The first rule, leaving out adultery, which Judaism and Christianity also prohibit, shows the patriarchy of Islam. A Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but a Christian or Jewish man may not marry a Muslim woman. This means that a Muslim man must exercise control in the marriage. The second rule is reasonable. But the third and fourth rules stifle and restrict free speech and freedom of religion.

According to the discretion of the caliph or his representative, the punishments for violating these rules are as follows: (1) death, (2) enslavement, (3) release without paying anything, and (4) ransoming in exchange for money. These punishments also execute free speech—even repulsive speech—and freedom of religion or conscience.

For the other schools of law besides Shafi, the translator of Abu Dawud’s hadith collection, Ahmad Hasan, informs us:

It is unanimously agreed that if a Muslim abuses or insults the Prophet . . . he should be killed. There is a difference of opinion of killing a non-Muslim. According to al-Shafi, he should be killed. Abu Hanifah is of the opinion that he should not be killed . . . Malik maintains that he should be killed except that he embraces Islam. (vol. 3, note 3799)

But Hasan records his opinion on a hadith that shows a Jewish woman being killed (see Hadith no. 4349 in Abu Dawud, above). "This [strangulation of the Jewish woman] shows that even if a Jew or any non-Muslim abuses the Prophet . . . he will be killed." This includes Christians, as well. Hasan then lists some jurists who hold this opinion (note 3800). Death for insults is excessive, and excess is never just.

To conclude this section, these legal rulings carry on the policies in the Quran and the traditions. Insulting Islam or Muhammad brings death for Muslims, and death, enslavement, release, or ransoming for non-Muslims. But the hadith shows that Muhammad chose death, and this last cited paragraph in sharia indicates death, as well. Sharia must never be allowed to gain even a small toe-hold in the West. It degrades and restricts people excessively, just as medieval law in the West used to degrade and restrict people excessively. The West has progressed, but Islam has stagnated.

Before moving to the Christian view of free speech, we should take stock of the implications of the last three sections.

Ultimately, censorship testifies to a lack of confidence in one’s position and message. If the message of Islam were truly superior, one could trust in the power of truth. As it stands, sharia with its prescribed punishments for questioning Muhammad, the Quran and sharia itself testifies to its position of weakness since the Islamic legal system threatens and carries out the threats against those who dare to differ.

How confident is Muhammad in his message that he has to rely on violence and force, besides reason and persuasive argument? How confident are today’s Muslims in their religion when they still insist on threatening critics and dissenters with severe punishment? Do today’s Muslims fear that Islam will fall apart were it to allow freedom of speech in their community?


Though Christianity says that blasphemy is morally repugnant and wrong, it provides steps to restore the blasphemer. It does not impose the death penalty, as Islam and the Old Testament do. The New International Version is used in the next two sections

The Torah

The sacred text says clearly and bluntly:

Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people (Exodus 22:28).

The penalty of this sin was revealed and actually carried out in another context.

The son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father got into a fight with an Israelite. The son blasphemed God, so they brought him before Moses who said that he should remain in custody until the will of the Lord made things clear.

Then the LORD said to Moses: "Take the blasphemer outside the camp . . . and the entire assembly is to stone him. Say to the Israelites: ‘If anyone curses God, he will be held responsible; anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes, he must be put to death.’" (Leviticus 24:13-16)

Clearly blasphemy is a sin, but did Jesus and his early church endorse the punishment? Should it be carried out today?

The New Testament

Jesus came to fulfill the law or Torah, not to destroy or abolish it (Matthew 5:17). He fulfills it in at least three ways, but the one we look at here takes away the law’s severe punishments. This benefits all of society, especially today.

Jesus fulfills the law by taking on himself the penalty for our sins. The Torah is filled with specific punishments for specific sins, but his death on the cross satisfies and propitiates divine wrath that is directed at our sins—this is the Christian doctrine of the atonement. It is for this reason that a Christian could never give up this doctrine and must totally reject Muhammad’s odd view that Christ never died on the cross (Sura 4:157). (For more information and a refutation of Muhammad’s odd claim, see this article and this one.) Muhammad’s belief is completely misguided. Christ’s death is God’s gift to us. We are saved and on our way to heaven, not based on our own works, but on Christ’s good work on the cross. Therefore, those who trust in Christ do not have to pay the spiritual penalty for their sins—though they will have to pay a penalty if they commit a crime like murder or theft.

For more information on how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, click on this article.

Is blasphemy a crime that deserves civil prosecution and time in jail or a fine?

First, Jesus was falsely accused of blasphemy by teachers of the law. According to Mark 2:1-12, some men brought a paralytic to Jesus, and Jesus said: "Son, your sins are forgiven" (v. 5). But some teachers of the law were sitting there and said among themselves: "Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Rather than get into a lengthy debate on the topic, Jesus simply heals the paralytic, demonstrating that God was backing his words. This means that Jesus was not blaspheming when he spoke those words. This is another hint (among many) of the divinity of Jesus. He did not order his disciples to find these teachers and assassinate them, stealthily in the night. He rose above such vicious and ungodly violence. He trusted in his Father to vindicate him.

Second, Jesus was falsely accused of blasphemy during his trial just before he laid down his life for the sins of the world. The judges at his trial evidently used Leviticus 24:13-16 against him. According to Matthew 26:57-67, as the Sanhedrin or Jewish high court brought false witnesses to testify against Jesus, he refused to answer their accusations. But the high priest asked the pertinent question: "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God" (v. 63). Jesus replied straightforwardly: "Yes, it is as you say" (v. 64). Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy" (v. 65). (See John 10:33-42, where Jesus was also accused a blasphemy for claiming he was the Son of God.) It was this confession during his trial that precipitated his God-ordained death.

Thus, by undergoing this penalty in the sacred law, Jesus now takes away the penalty for everyone after him. They do not have to die for the sin of blasphemy, though blasphemy as such is still immoral. But blasphemers do not have to get stoned or crucified for their sins; Jesus took their execution on himself as he was getting executed. He commutes their sentence. This is far different from Muhammad who either commanded or allowed blasphemers to be killed. Muhammad seems to even celebrate the death of his enemies.

What about the early church after the death and resurrection of Jesus?

The earliest followers of Jesus needed some guidelines as they lived in Christian communities, first in Jerusalem and Judea, and eventually throughout the Greco-Roman world. For this reason (and many others), the New Testament came into being. The Christians wanted to know what Jesus may have said or thought about this or that problem like dietary restrictions or the Sabbath. We can get a view of how the church worked out their policies, under the leadership of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We focus on the Spirit-inspired Apostle Paul.

According to Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus lays out some specific steps to restore an errant brother. First, an individual Christian must show the sinning brother his fault. But if the sinner does not repent, then the early Christians were to take two or more brothers with them to show him his fault. If he refuses to listen, then the church leaders were to tell it to the entire church; and if he still does not repent, then he is to be removed from Christian fellowship. Paul and his disciple Timothy did this for two errant men, whose names survive in the Epistles to Timothy: Hymenaeus and Alexander. These two false teachers (and a certain Philetus) said that the resurrection had already taken place, probably a spiritual resurrection, not a bodily one, so they led some church members astray (2 Timothy 2:17-18). Paul said, "I have handed them over to Satan, so they may be taught not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:20). It is clear from the context that the church leaders warned these three men, but they refused to listen. The leaders spoke of their heresy to the entire church, but the two men would still not listen. So Paul said he would turn them over to Satan, which means that they were removed from Christian fellowship and therefore exposed to the wiles of Satan, without spiritual protection. In the Greco-Roman world, when the church was still small but growing rapidly, removal from fellowship was serious, since polytheism ruled over people’s lives. No account is recorded that says this last remedy worked for the three heretics. Regardless of the results chosen by the three errant men, the Spirit-inspired Paul was following the wisdom of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-18.

It should be pointed out that Paul knew about blasphemy, first hand. He tells Timothy in his first epistle to him that he too was "once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man" (1 Timothy 1:13). He continues with his testimony: "But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" (v. 14). Thus, Paul understood that he did not have to take on the penalty for blasphemy—death or rejection by the risen Lord Jesus. Jesus did not send his disciples to find and assassinate Paul. Instead, Jesus poured his divine love on Paul. But what about Hymenaeus and Alexander? They had reached the end of the line. Maybe this removal from fellowship would make them reach rock bottom, where the only way to go is up—to Jesus. They certainly had plenty of opportunities to repent and receive the love of the Father, but they rejected each opportunity before this last remedy of removal.

No one knows the outcome, but they may have repented and received divine love.

These are practical and down-to-earth steps that Christian churches may follow with variations that relate to specific facts. Therefore, early Christianity has a lot to offer society.

But the essential difference (among many) between these steps and Muhammad’s recycling of an old-new law is the penalty. In no place does the New Testament endorse killing or flogging insulters and blasphemers. Rather, Jesus and his New Testament authors seek to help and heal the sinner, not condemn him as a criminal.

The West must protect its freedom of speech

What is the major difference between Islamic law or sharia and western law?

Islamic law is based on the Quran and the example of Muhammad in the hadith. Muslims assert that Allah inspired his book and guided his prophet in the clearest and most direct way possible. Logically, this means that Islam loathes change and innovation. If sharia followed common sense, reason, and the dignity of humans more fully, then this would not be a problem in human affairs (theologically, though, many problems emerge). However, this article and the linked articles in the introduction demonstrate that Islamic law does not follow these three virtues. But how can they, when the Quran and hadith are harsh and excessive? Excess is never just. But Allah wills it nonetheless.

Western law, on the other hand, does not claim direct inspiration from God, even though Biblical principles lay at its foundation. Also, since the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason (c. 1600-1800), a strong dose of reason has been injected into the legal process, as well. (The Islamic world has not yet undergone this kind of Enlightenment, but it needs to. But can it? How can Islam enjoy the benefits of Enlightenment when Muslims must abandon their roots, for example, the life or sunna of Muhammad? At least the life of Jesus brings freedom, as we will see, below.) If western law became harsh and oppressive, specifically, in the Medieval Age, then it could be changed for the better. Reason and the Biblical principle of dignity, for instance, allow for improvement more readily. This is why reform is much easier to enact here in the West than in societies that are drenched in religious law.

This difference between Islamic law and western law can be seen most clearly in the founding of the US as it evolved from the small communities in the early seventeenth century to the thirteen colonies and to the founders’ writing and ratification of the Constitution in the late eighteenth century.

The founders of the US wrote documents in support of the Constitution before it was ratified. These documents sometimes draw from the Bible. For example, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison proposed the plan to divide the central government into three branches: the judicial, legislative, and executive. He read Isaiah 33:22: "For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He will save us." The three branches of government are kept separate and balanced on the theory that humans are corrupted and therefore corruptible and that no branch should become too powerful.

Another stalwart idea is free speech. The founders knew the basics of the four Gospels. They knew the laws in the Old Testament against blasphemy. At the very least they had access to the laws against blasphemy in the puritan colonies, particularly, "An Abstract of the Laws of New-England, as they are now established. Printed in London in 1641," recorded by John Cotton, an early puritan (a puritan is a devout and extra-strict Christian).

Four rules in this Abstract, in Chapter 7 which pertains to crimes that deserve capital punishment or banishment, are relevant to this present article. The very first rule says: "FIRST, blasphemy, which is cursing God by atheism, or the like, to be punished by death." This follows the Old Testament. Next, rule no. 7 says that members of the church who do not conform to the church’s doctrine "shall be cut off by banishment." Further, a similar rule, no. 8, says, "Whosoever shall revile the religion and worship of God, and the government of the church, as it is now established, shall be cut off by banishment." It then cites 1 Corinthians 5:5, which sees a sexually immoral young man banished from the church—though he later repented and was welcomed back in. Finally, no. 11 says that "Profaning the Lord’s day, in a careless and scornful neglect or contempt thereof, to be punished with death." This rule follows the Old Testament. Clearly, then, free speech was severely restricted in the early colonies because the puritan leaders took a literalist interpretation of the Bible.

How did the later founders sort out these rules that elicit death and banishment and that follow sometimes the Old Testament or the New Testament?

Many (not all) signers of the Declaration of Independence were devout Christians and ministers, and many or those of like mind who endorsed the Constitution were also devout Christians and ministers. They worked out a compromise between religious law embodied in the Bible, and civil law stemming from reason and common law. After all, they lived during the height of the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment, so they understood that God endowed humankind with a reasoning mind to figure out the balance between religious law and civil law—though civil law has the Bible in its background.

The historical context of the first puritan colonies demonstrates that the communities were small and held to uniform Christian doctrines, so religious law could be imposed. (But some members of these communities felt suffocated and wanted to leave.). On the other hand, in the late eighteenth century the thirteen colonies were large and religiously diverse by comparison. Therefore, the founders drew from the Christian principle of freedom in the simple gospel message. Christ said, "If anyone comes after [follows] me" . . . (Matthew 17:24). The little word "if" implies freedom to accept the way of Jesus or to walk away from it. He never raised a holy army to force anyone to convert (but Muhammad did). Thus, the founders of the US did not accept the principle of coercion, but of freedom.

The founders understood the principle of freedom in the gospel. Patrick Henry delivered a speech in 1765 to the House of Burgesses in which he says that America is founded on the gospel. For that reason, people of other faiths are offered asylum and religious freedom.

It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.

He seems to say that a religion would exclude people, but the gospel includes them. He is right.

So what does the Constitution say about free speech, specifically? How did the founders strike a balance between unpopular and even repugnant speech and popular and agreeable speech in religious affairs and disagreements? The First Amendment tells us:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This short Amendment connects freedom of worship with the freedom of speech. Everyone must have the freedom to express their opinions, even unpopular ones. And everyone must worship (or not) as they want. No conscience can be coerced. So the framers of the Constitution disagreed with the early puritans. No one should be put to death for blasphemy or verbal insults against religion or the church. The founders followed a deeper principle from the gospel, rather than a literal reading of the Bible.

We in the West must protect our free speech, especially in criticizing truth claims, even religious ones.

Application to today’s world

The importance of absolute freedom of speech in debates over religions is seen most clearly in two examples in the West and in Muslims pushing for sharia courts in Canada and Australia.

As for the first example, David Harsanyi reports that in 1999, a London-based group called Muhajiroun (named after Muhammad’s fellow-emigrants from Mecca to Medina in AD 622), describing itself as Defenders of the Messenger Jesus, put a bounty on the playwright Terrence McNally for his play Corpus Christi, when it reached London. The play, set in modern Texas, shows Jesus dying not as the King of Kings, but as the King of Queers, after his gay lover Judas betrays him. This play is especially offensive to Christians, and some may protest it, but no Christian can ever cite support from the New Testament or from the example of Christ to assassinate McNally. The Muhajiroun, however, have ample testimony from the example of Muhammad and the Quran to eliminate the playwright.

The second example concerns Theo van Gogh, who was not a US citizen, but a citizen of Holland. Any citizen in the West and anywhere else should be allowed total free speech when he debates another citizen over ideas, such as the validity of Islam or Christianity, even if the speech becomes blasphemous. Theo van Gogh insulted Islam in his film Submission. He also said that Jesus was "the rotten fish of Nazareth," apparently referring to the Christian symbol of a fish. Any Christian finds this offensive, and may even protest van Gogh and his art for those words, but no Christian should ever prosecute or threaten an offensive and vulgar speaker like van Gogh. Everyone must be allowed to choose his own methods of debate, even if they are vulgar. They may lose the debate because of their methods, but they must be free to lose it on those grounds.

All discussions of allowing sharia courts in the West and elsewhere must not conclude that such courts are valuable to society. The hard evidence demonstrates beyond doubt that sharia does not benefit any society, for it contains too many harsh rules and punishments. One of the most tragic and under-reported occurrences in the West in recent years is the existence of a sharia court in Canada. Muslims are pushing for a sharia divorce court in Australia, as well. Having a court of arbitration if it is based on western law and legal theory is legitimate, but sharia does not hold to this standard. So Canada should promptly shut down any sharia court, and Australia should never allow one. Such a court should never be permitted in the US, the rest of the West, or anywhere else in the world. Thankfully, the province of Quebec, Canada, has forbidden sharia. This is the right initiative, for sharia ultimately degrades society and diminishes freedom.

The West must never allow laws that restrict speech criticizing any religion, even if the speech is offensive and vulgar.


Christianity, if properly understood, allows for freedom of speech. Jesus never assassinated or ordered the assassination of mockers, even though the Torah, which he revered, commanded death for blasphemy. He fulfilled that penalty in his death on the cross. Rather, he said that if anyone wants to follow him, then the hearer of his call should come. If not, the listener is free to go his own way. The founders of the US drew from this principle of freedom of religion and conscience, as well as from sound reasoning, coming from the Enlightenment. Therefore, everyone must be free to speak his or her own mind without reprisal, assassination, or imprisonment, merely for debating religious ideas, even if the words are offensive.

In many Islamic countries, in contrast, a citizen is not permitted to criticize Muhammad, the Quran, or Islam. This act may get him thrown in jail or killed. This modern policy comes directly from the early source documents in Islam, all the way to classical fiqh. Can Islamic law be reformed today when it draws from these source documents? How can Islam itself be reformed, when this means abandoning many, many passages in the Quran and the hadith?

Jesus Christ came with good news and freedom and God’s love, even when he was insulted. Muhammad came with repression and death for dissidents and critics. Jesus allowed dissent, but often answered his opponents with words. The outcome was never in doubt. God anointed him to respond with a definitive reply—but never with assassinations. This implies that the gospel is attractive and backed by God. This implies that Christianity, specifically the life of Jesus, can be defended, without repressing free speech, but the opposite is true of Islam. In contrast, the life and the Quran of Muhammad, which were filled with moral excesses and violence, cannot be defended reasonably. This implies that God was not backing this man or his message.

Christianity advances society forward. Islam drags society backwards.

Jesus liberates. Muhammad assassinated.

In case the reader missed the link at the end of the section "the Quran," here it is again. This article is a superb analysis of intolerance in Islam, seen in the Quran, the hadith and in Islam’s early history. The verses in the Quran that seem tolerant must be read in their larger historical context.

What context? It is a fact that Muhammad either sent out or went out on seventy-four raids, expeditions, or full-scale wars in the mere ten years that he lived in Medina (AD 622-632). Sometimes the raid was a small assassination hit squad, but one was a full-scale Crusade to Tabuk in AD 630, with thirty-thousand holy warriors. This is the larger historical context of all of the verses in the Quran in the Medinan suras.

For more modern examples of Muslims assassinating and killing mockers and political opponents in the West and elsewhere around the world, please go to this article and then click on the links throughout the article and in the Supplementary Material at the end.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson. Originally published at, this article was revised for Answering Islam.

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